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Commentary: Bikes on the road: 'As far to the right as is safe'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2013 -  Why do some bikers ride down the smack middle of the lane? Don’t they get that they’re backing up traffic?

It is easy for a sense of frustration to take hold when you’re in a car, slowly trailing behind a person on a bicycle. The posted speed limit is 30, yet your speedometer reads 12. With a glance at the dashboard clock, you might sigh, and wonder why this biker won’t just move over already.

In such situations, it is important for people in cars to realize that undoubtedly, if a person on a bike is riding down the middle of a traffic lane, it’s for a darn good reason. Missouri law states “cyclists shall ride as far right as is safe.” The key phrase here is as is safe. A lot of times, riding far to the right can be hazardous, and a cyclist must move into the center of the lane (commonly referred to as “taking the lane”). This maneuver is better for everyone on the road, not just the cyclist in question.

One of the most common reasons for taking the lane is that the road is just too narrow to share with a car. It can be easy for drivers to overestimate how much space they actually have on either side of the car without a physical barrier (such as a median or a wall). In situations where a cyclist could be too easily side-swiped by a car, taking the lane prevents cars from attempting to pass. When a cyclist takes the lane in this case, any chance of a car clipping a cyclist is eliminated.

Taking the lane is also appropriate when debris is present along the edge of the street. Often, there can be all kinds of junk in the road that wouldn’t normally cause issues for motorists -- such as broken glass, sharp twigs, rocks and trash, not to mention grates or structural issues such as potholes and uneven pavement. All of these things can easily cause flat tires, or worse, loss of control for people on bikes. Motorists might not be able to see these hazards, as they are more removed from the surface of the street itself. A vigilant, smart cyclist, however, will adjust his or her path to avoid these safety concerns.

Another hazard that can be present on the right side of the road is the dreaded “door zone.” This term refers to the length that car doors can span when parallel parked on the street. Unfortunately, many poorly planned bike lanes are dangerously placed alongside door zones. Some bold cyclists might choose to ride in these bike lanes anyway, making sure to look for people getting out of their cars as they go. Others might choose to take the lane to avoid getting hit by a door and thrown into oncoming traffic. So while it might be frustrating to see a cyclist riding next to a designated bike lane, take note of the placement of the lane to understand why they might not be using it.

Essentially, when cyclists ride down the middle of the street, they’re not doing it to make motorists angry. They’re doing it as a smart and effective preventative measure to avoid a potentially serious crash. Another idea to bear in mind is that the posted speed limit is just that — a limit. No vehicle should be moving faster than the limit, but it is permissible for them to be moving slower. A person driving a car is not entitled to be driving exactly at the speed limit at all times, but is expected to adjust accordingly for slower vehicles on the road — and a bicycle is, indeed, considered a vehicle by law.

So the next time you feel frustrated while ambling behind a cyclist who has taken the lane, think to yourself about what’s more important: the measly 30 to 60 seconds of your day spent waiting for the chance to pass? Or the health, safety and comfort of the human being in front of you, who has a legal right to be there?

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